Melissa Leach

Melissa Leach

Former STEPS Centre Director, current IDS Director

Melissa is a social anthropologist specialising in environmental and science-society issues. Research interests include social and institutional dimensions of environmental and technological change, and issues of knowledge, power and citizen engagement.

Melissa Leach's Google Scholar profile

  • Achieving sustainable development means no goal leaving gender behind

    Published on 8 September 2015

    This article is part of a series on the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Feminists and their allies fought strongly for a stand-alone Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Goal 5 now offers the potential to embed gender equality into transformative approaches to sustainable development.


    For this promise to be fulfilled, however, it is vital that stand-alone does not mean siloed. Gender equality has implications for all the other SDGs, and as implementation proceeds, an integrated approach will be needed to maximise synergies and avoid unfortunate trade-offs.


  • Made in China? Mutual learning in a global development era

    Published on 24 April 2015

    IDS Director Melissa Leach and DRC Director General Cheng Guoqiang_H.Corbett, IDS
    This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference when Asian and African countries gathered in Indonesia to discuss independence, peace and prosperity. The conference resulted in 10 principles based on friendship, solidarity and cooperation in this newly post-colonial era for many of the states involved, prefiguring what many now term ‘South-South’ cooperation in development.

    China played a key role in the conference and President Xi Jinping is attending the Bandung commemorative summit following his visit to Pakistan.

    This makes it an appropriate week for IDS colleagues and I to have been in Beijing meeting with existing and new partners to discuss the roles of cooperation and to debate shared agendas in what is now a very different era of global development.

    Changing China

    China has long grappled with some of the key problems of development. Amidst extraordinary economic growth and dynamism since the ‘opening up’ reforms 30 years ago, there have been massive advances in infrastructure, finance, industrial and technological change, and urbanisation, and some impressive domestic achievements in tackling poverty and building effective health and social welfare systems.

    The sheer scale of China’s changes in a country of such size and diversity – along with its experience of managing complexity and dynamism, and particular combination of central state agenda-setting and local government and market innovation – have long invited international interest in Chinese lessons for development.

    Two more recent shifts vastly magnify the relevance of Chinese comparisons and cooperation.

    First is China’s growing global orientation, positioning itself as a world leader in addressing shared, interconnected development challenges as ‘first among equals’ of the so-called ‘rising power’ countries. This builds on longstanding Chinese interests in international trade and exports, and recent generations of infrastructure and agriculture projects, especially in Africa.

    Now however China is the world’s largest exporter of capital. The country is staking stronger and positive positions in global governance, whether around climate change, international finance or epidemics – with plans to establish a Chinese Center for Disease control in Africa in the wake of the Ebola crisis, for example. The high-profile ‘One Road, One Belt’ strategy focuses on the Asian countries bordering the Silk Road and China’s maritime neighbours, including the recent establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

    The second is China’s ‘New Normal’. Now heard everywhere, this term – though uses vary – both describes a situation where economic growth has slowed to around 7% per year or less, and promotes a new paradigm emphasising quality of life, poverty elimination, protecting the vulnerable, and care for the environment.

    Chiming with the slogan ‘ecological civilisation’, this signals a stronger commitment to ‘greenisation’ to tackle the environmental consequences of rapid growth and urbanisation – experienced most viscerally in the extreme air pollution experienced by the residents of Beijing and other major cities. In the New Normal, it seems, domestic development is to be sustainable development.

    Flows of money, flows of knowledge

    How these shifts will play out in practice amidst China’s complex internal and external relations remains to be seen. But what is clear is that these changing flows of money and investment will be accompanied by changing flows of knowledge and learning.The New Normal places a premium on innovation to tackle sustainable development challenges.

    As was clear in the rich discussions at the conference on ‘Pathways to Sustainability in a Changing China’ hosted by the STEPS Centre and partners at Beijing Normal University this week, China’s multiple innovation pathways in areas like low-carbon energy, seeds and agriculture, health service provision and sustainable cities can both enrich and draw from experiences in other countries. This event launched the China Hub of the STEPS Global Pathways to Sustainability Consortium, which we hope will facilitate joint research, learning and policy engagement in coming years with other Hubs in Argentina, East Africa and India as well as the US and Europe.

    Mutual learning was also the key theme of our launch event for the Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development. This brought top Chinese researchers and policymakers together with the Centre’s other international partners in a roundtable to showcase ideas around global governance and finance, and development co-operation in areas such as agriculture, health and social policy.

    The Development Research Center (DRC) of the Chinese State Council, previously focused on domestic development, is now emphasizing international cooperation and is establishing a China International Knowledge of Development Centre (CIKD) to inform this, as well as a Silk Road Think Tank network. As the DRC head, Cheng Guoqiang, put it, they are interested in internationalizing Chinese experiences, and domesticating international experiences to assist development within China. The Memorandum of Understanding that IDS signed with the DRC should position us to work with partners in help to shape this learning agenda as it unfolds over coming years.

    Challenging knowledge and power relations

    All this signals that ‘South-South’ co-operation has become something quite different – involving new players and power relations, and a global conception of development, involving shared global challenges and public goods, and progressive change and transformation for everyone everywhere.

    This applies to the UK too – development is now as relevant in Brighton as it is in Beijing, Bandung or Bamako.

    Yet embracing the opportunities of multi-way innovation and learning in this global context will also require a new humility amongst all countries and institutions – to abandon hierarchies of knowledge and power; be prepared to share and adapt development models, not just export them; and to think seriously about addressing global challenges while respecting diverse local needs and perspectives.

    How to achieve this shift – in China or other rising powers, or indeed in the UK – is perhaps the biggest challenge of all, and should be a question on all our minds as we enter this heady new global development era.

    • This article was originally posted on the IDS website
    • Image: IDS Director Melissa Leach and DRC Director General, Department for International Cooperation and Secretary General, Academic Committee Cheng Guoqiang shake hands, as part of the signing of an MOU between IDS and DRC. Credit: H.Corbett – IDS  


  • Why gender equality and sustainable development are inextricably linked

    Published on 19 October 2014

    by Melissa Leach, Director, Institute of Development Studies


    As the world moves towards Sustainable Development Goals for the post-2015 era, there is emerging debate about how target-setting and implementation might integrate across the 17 goals proposed by the Open Working Group (OWG) so that the inextricable links between, say, climate change, water and food are properly addressed. Meanwhile, feminists and others rightly celebrate that goal 5 (‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’) survived the fraught, politicised OWG process.

    But while retaining this as a ‘standalone’ goal is a victory that may guard against the perils of gender mainstreaming and marginalisation, arguably the integration of this with the implementation of the other SDGs is the most important task of all.

    As a major United Nations report launched on 20th October argues, gender equality must be integral to sustainable development. This is the latest in the flagship series of five-yearly World Survey on the Role of Women in Economic Development reports, prepared by UN Women. I had the privilege, together with IDS and STEPS Centre colleagues Lyla Mehta and Preetha Prabhakaran, of leading its conceptualisation. This included authoring the background conceptual framing chapter laying out a ‘gendered pathways approach’, and working with international feminist scholars to shape contributions in areas where gender-sustainability intersections are biting hard. (more…)

  • Global health meets genomics: inequality and politics

    Published on 8 August 2014


    Scientific advances in the understanding of genetics and genomics have the potential to generate major improvements for human health in the near future. However, from a global health perspective, the translation of this technology into new medical treatments raises profound international and local issues around inequality, identity and insecurity.

    On 18th July 2014, we attended an interdisciplinary one-day conference at the University of Sussex which brought together experts from various fields to examine the complexities around the issues of genetics, genomics and global health.

    Keynote speaker Andrew Lakoff, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Sociology and Communication at the University of Southern California, presented a provocative juxtaposition between the new techniques of molecular biology (genetics and genomics) and global health: the world of genomics is currently largely geared towards the aging population of the wealthy world, whereas global health focuses on the developing world, is underfunded and under the purview of development agencies.

    Lakoff presented what he described as two normative regimes within global health:

    • Humanitarian biomedicine, which focuses on treating existing diseases afflicting populations in the developing world.
    • Global health security, which prepares for the onset of potential future diseases that might afflict members of the advanced industrial world.


  • Resilience 2014: Limits revisited? Planetary boundaries, justice and power

    Published on 9 May 2014

    By Melissa Leach, IDS Director

    In 1972 Meadows et al’s Limits to Growth made scientific Melissa Leachand policy waves, as its ‘World3’ model predicted the end of growth and prosperity as rising, consuming populations ran up against resource limits. In critique, SPRU (Science and Technology Policy Research) at the University of Sussex offered alternative models predicting that human ingenuity and innovation would overcome scarcities. Meanwhile an alternative Latin American World Model from Fundacion Bariloche in Argentina argued that a desirable social future ‘based on equality and full participation of all its members ….intrinsically compatible with its environment’ could be achieved using proven human creativity, but also requiring transformation in social and institutional organisation, and relations of power.

    Today, the idea of ‘green limits’ to development is resurfacing in the concept of‘Planetary boundaries’. And again, debate about power is heating up fast. In a plenary dialogue at the Resilience 2014 conference in Montpellier this week I went head-to-head with Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), key proponent of the planetary boundaries concept, to debate its implications for sustainability and social justice, presenting ideas from the STEPS Centre. The Limits to Growth genealogy couldn’t have been clearer as our chair was Dennis Meadows himself. (Presentation here)

    Planetary boundaries – science and policy

    Earth system scientists propose that we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities have become the dominant drivers of climate, bio-geochemical cycles, ecosystems and biodiversity. A series of nine planetary boundaries has been identified, referring to the biophysical processes in the Earth’s system on which human life depends (Rockström et al. 2009). Together, these serve to keep the planet within Holocene-like conditions, defining a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity. As human actions rapidly approach or transgress key global thresholds, so, it is argued, our societies are entering zones of great uncertainty and turbulence which deeply threaten continued development.

    While scientists debate the ongoing uncertainties in assessing impending ecological thresholds, tipping points and their implications, versions of planetary boundaries thinking have rushed headlong into policy and public spheres. For many, this is science providing authoritative evidence and justification for urgent action to safeguard human futures on our planet. Yet as Roger Pielke argued in a much-cited blog it can also be seen as a dangerous cry of impending catastrophe and disaster to uphold top-down power grabs, undermining democracy and social justice.

    Integrating power and politics

    Building on these somewhat polarised positions, as well as collaboration with SRC colleagues (pdf) the Resilience 2014 dialogue was a great opportunity to debate our commonalities and differences. We agree that business-as-usual development on a constrained planet is producing unprecedented threats. We do urgently need to find pathways that connect much more fully with the biosphere and ecological processes, but that also keep people above ‘social boundaries’ of rights, wellbeing and voice; as Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ highlights that keep societies within a safe and just space (Leach, Raworth and Rockström in World Social Science report (pdf)).

    However, I suggest that we can only meet these challenges if we recognise them as fundamentally political. The concept of planetary boundaries can be seen as a discourse that enables some things while marginalizing and excluding others. And the ‘we’ so often invoked in ‘the anthropocene’ is not really so unified; many diverse people, places, identities, interests, goals, imaginations and desires are at stake.

    We therefore need to be asking further questions:

    About boundaries

    • Who defines them and how?
    • In relation to what and whose notions of safety and control?

    About goals

    • Where are pathways going?
    • Towards whose visions of the future?
    • Sustainability and resilience of what for whom, where?

    About pathway choices

    • How are these made, and by whom?

    And about the politics of distribution

    • Who gains and who loses from particular interventions and patterns of change?
    Planetary boundaries discourse aligns all too neatly with top-down approaches that ignore these politics, and instead seek regulatory, planning, technical or market ‘fixes’. The non-negotiability, urgency and control in planetary boundaries ideas leads all too easily to new forms of environmental authoritarianism. These can undermine people’s rights and livelihoods, contributing to injustice in resource access, wellbeing and voice.

    Missed opportunities – multiple, diverse pathways

    The discourse of planetary boundaries can also downplay the need for more fundamental social and economic transformations. It can prioritise single solutions over the diverse pathways needed to suit diverse people and places, and build resilience. It marginalises the significance of knowledge and values from ‘below’, as local people live with and experience social and ecological dynamics on a daily basis. And it obscures valuable pathways based on citizen innovation, action and collective mobilisation, as seen so vividly in recent movements around sustainable cities and food sovereignty.

    Recognising the operation of power is an opening to challenge it. We need, I suggest, inclusive deliberation around goals, futures and pathways to get there. In this way, planetary boundaries – and other ‘green limits’ ideas – become not an end, but a means to a democratic politics which should surely be central to futures that are socially just as well as safe.

    Let’s hope that as the upcoming 2015 Sustainable Development Goals are set and implemented, these values remain centre stage.

  • Ebola in Guinea – people, patterns and puzzles

    Published on 9 April 2014

    By Melissa Leach, Principal Investigator of Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium

    setting up traps in the mining area

    Melissa Leach and team set up rat traps as part of their multidisciplinary research into emerging zoonoses in West Africa

    The francophone West African country of Guinea doesn’t often make international headlines, but has this week for the nastiest of reasons. An outbreak of Ebola, first identified in the forested south-east of the country in mid-March, has now spread across the country to take hold in the coastal capital, Conakry, where at least six cases have been diagnosed.This is the first recorded West African outbreak of this rapid-killing haemorrhagic fever, which since the 1990s has been associated with a series of epidemics in Central and East Africa. The virus in Guinea is the Zaire type, which has a 90 per cent fatality rate. So far more than 70 people have died, making this the deadliest outbreak since 2007, when 187 people died in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    This is devastating news for people in Guinea – a country I’ve lived and worked in over many years. But it’s not just a sense of personal connection with tragedy that prompts these reflections, nor the fact that Ebola is a zoonotic disease closely related to those we’re currently studying in the Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium. It is also because this outbreak raises intriguing patterns and puzzles that encourage us to ask new questions about zoonotic disease emergence in general, and what may be happening here in particular.


  • Living on the edge: Rethinking aid amidst complexity

    Published on 24 October 2013

    By Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre directoraid on the edge of chaos

    These days, a remarkably short and convenient flight takes one from Sussex UK –  where among other STEPS Centre activities this week I’ve been contributing to the post-2015 global sustainable development goals process and the international Future Earth Science Committee  – and Sierra Leone. Here, I’m on my way to join Njala University and Kenema Government Hospital colleagues and villagers in the country’s forested east, exploring the ecological and social processes shaping transmission and vulnerability to Lassa fever, a virus carried by rodents that routinely devastates lives and livelihoods here. This is one of the case studies within our Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, an affiliated programme of the STEPS Centre exploring the interactions between people, environments and zoonotic disease. (more…)

  • Haemorrhagic fevers in Africa: Narratives, politics and pathways of disease and response

    Published on 20 December 2011

    This article by Melissa Leach, STEPS Centre director, appeared in Wellcome History 38 (Summer 2008).

    Haemorrhagic fevers capture popular imagination as deadly zoonotic diseases that come ‘out of Africa’. Ebola, lassa and other viral haemorrhagic fevers that are associated with wildlife vectors in forested environments figure prominently in current concerns about so-called ‘emerging infectious diseases’, their hotspots of origin, and threat of global spread. Outbreaks attract rapid international control and policy responses.

    This ‘outbreak narrative’ (Wald 2008) is only one amongst several storylines about haemorrhagic fevers, however. Other narratives present contrasting views concerning their causes, dynamics, significance and control. Narratives matter because they shape the responses of health institutions and others. In this short article I outline three other narratives which highlight shortcomings in dominant, epidemiologically-driven outbreak responses, and which might offer pointers towards more effective ways of dealing with haemorrhagic fevers. (more…)